A common illness that typically causes little more than a fever and rash has killed 24 children in China, and health officials fear the worst may be yet to come as outbreaks occur in neighbouring countries.
China's health ministry issued a nationwide alert over the weekend after the enterovirus 71 virus, or EV-71, which causes hand, foot and mouth disease, infected more than 5,151 children in central Anhui province. The disease began spreading in Anhui in early March. But a delay in reporting it to the public until last weekend triggered criticism in the media, which said local government officials should be sacked.
Health officials say there was no cover-up in Anhui and the reason for the delay was that medical teams were trying to work out what the illness was. An initial cover-up of the SARS epidemic in 2003 led to the sacking of Beijing's mayor and the health minister.
The outbreak comes as China gears up for the Olympic Games. But Hans Troedsson, the World Health Organization's country representative for China, said the disease should not disrupt the Beijing Games, which start Aug. 8. "I don't see it at all as a threat to the Olympics or any upcoming events ... This is a disease mainly affecting young children," he said.
Troedsson said the virus normally peaks in June and July, meaning there could still be an increase in infections as the weather warms. The disease thrives in hot climates, and Asia has seen increased occurrences, including in Singapore, Vietnam and Taiwan, he said. The outbreak is centred around Fuyang city, where 22 deaths have occurred. Yesterday, the official Xinhua News Agency said two more children in Guangdong province had died of the virus.
Maybe it is because I was a resident of a city which lived with a SARS siege, and while coughing guaranteed you a seat by yourself on public transit or allowed you to go to the front of the line for the ATM bank machine - it was overall not much fun. So I have to wonder if the world can really afford to trust the Chinese officials to be forthright and honest when it comes to matters of public health.